Advance Warning: I have no formal background in economics. I have a master’s degree in sociology and a lot of experience working on the topic of knowledge economies, but that’s about the short of it.
Time for my $0.02. 🙂 Comments/criticism encouraged – I’m always interested in improving my understanding of the world.
I’ve been following the Occupy Wall St. movement and the associated #Occupy movement worldwide for a few weeks now with a fair amount of interest. I’m trying to make sense of it, as is everyone else. As anybody who’s been following the mainstream news is undoubtedly aware, we’ve been cycling in and out of economic crisis mode now for the last four or five years, and we seem to be poised at a “make or break” point yet again with regards to global markets and more than a few national economies, with the global economy at stake. It makes sense to me that people would be upset and looking for solutions when the rich are getting exponentially richer at the expense of everyone else, even getting away with outright fraud in multiple instances (robosigning, etc.).
Part of the beauty of the Occupy movement is that it has steadfastly refused to produce any concrete list of demands that would allow it to be easily categorized and then demonized or dismissed. That said, a lot of the discourse is still framed from an approach informed by capitalism and the global economy we’ve worked and lived with for most of the last hundred years (I realize I’m horribly generalizing, but to address this properly is more writing than I can do as a quick first commentary). This bothers me, because I believe that the underlying premises that we derive our systems of resource distribution from have changed fairly abruptly in a way that is not yet appreciated.
In short, there will never be enough jobs again.^
Globally, the stats I can find (ILO’s Global Employment Trends 2011) indicate:
* 3.1 billion workers globally out of a population that has recently crossed 7 billion.
* 660+ million in industry (slightly declining).
* 1.06 billion in agriculture (declining).
* 1.3 billion in services (increasing).
* 220 million unemployed (increasing).
As globalization continues to break down the barriers for access to these labor markets, Western countries have increasingly found themselves competing directly with this global pool of labor, resulting in cries for increased protectionism and spawning anti-globalization movements from people of all political colors. This is an implicit recognition of the fact that there will never be enough jobs again^ – these calls seek to artificially prop up labor markets by limiting the competition to labor pools inside national borders, but the internet has reduced the relevance of national borders to the average citizen in almost every area besides employment and nationalist emotion.
It’s hard to get an exact figure, but the estimates I’ve found (google “how many people can one farmer feed” – I’ll try to find some easy-click sources later) indicate that somewhere between 100 and 1000 people (150-ish being a more common estimate) can be fed per farmer using modern farming techniques. I presume this refers to grain and livestock and probably not to more obscure types of farming (saffron, anyone?:P), but in terms of simply providing a base amount of food, the number of people working in agriculture can only be expected to drop massively as technological improvements and increased education hit the rest of the developing world. By today’s “modern” standard, at a low number of even 75 per farmer (a number more in line with the 1970s), we actually need less than 100 million, or one-tenth, the number of agricultural workers that actually exist. This suggests that, in agriculture alone, approximately 900 million jobs currently only exist due to massive systemic inefficiency (I won’t even go into market factors that result in outright waste, farmers destroying crops because they can’t afford to transport them to markets, etc.).
I haven’t even tried to find numbers for industry, but I’m presuming that at least a couple hundred million people working in modern industry are employed making “widgets,” textiles, etc. These are currently things that are impractical or impossible to produce easily at home – but with home fabrication under intensive development and the price of both open-source and consumer fabrication devices falling rapidly, I don’t think I’m out of line in predicting that the upcoming revolution in personal-scale manufacturing by simply downloading designs and “printing” real objects at home a la RepRap is going to utterly decimate jobs in both manufacturing and service which are related to the design, manufacturing, and delivery of these types of objects.
A conservative guess is that maybe half of the global workforce is currently necessary to maintain current levels of production if obstacles to efficiency were removed (patents, lack of access to capital, etc.). It’s not inconceivable to think that in 20-30 years, we could be facing an extra billion “unemployed” workers from technological improvements in agriculture and industry as well as from simple population growth, and the number of “necessary” workers could drop to a tenth of the available pool. And the truth is, we don’t need everyone to work to produce enough for everyone.
I realize that a lot of people believe in the magical free market fairy that “creates” wealth and jobs out of thin air (yes, improvements in resource use and efficiency do result in improved standards of living, a sort of wealth-by-adding-energy-to-the-system that is still subject to degradation like every other form of order in the universe), but short of utterly useless service jobs like everyone having a personal hairdresser or a maid, I don’t really foresee there being enough jobs ever again. And to further complicate matters, artificial intelligence and robotics are increasingly proving more efficient at a lot of previously service-oriented tasks as well, so I think that even this segment of the global workforce will ultimately see decimation.
The short of it is, we’ve reached a point where our collective technological advancement has outpaced our ability to know what to do with ourselves as a species. “Liberals” think that “conservatives” are keeping them poor. “Conservatives” believe liberals are lazy hippies who just need to get a job. Communists say that communism will save the world, and the Ayn Rand fans wave the banner of individualism and capitalism as some sort of cure-all. All of them, I think, are wrong.
The debate must be reframed in terms of a world where we no longer need everyone to work and there will never again be enough jobs.^ What sort of world do we want that to be? While I believe that not everyone needs to work, I believe most people are happier if they are being productive members of society in some way, so we need to refashion our economic realities to provide them an opportunity to do so and to have a basic standard of living. I don’t know what this world will look like. I don’t know if we will ever get there. I don’t believe capitalism is the answer, nor do I believe that communism is. Humans have a competitive instinct that must have an outlet, but must also be channeled for the greater good. All I know is that we – all of us, not just the Occupy movement – have to put our thinking caps on now because time is running out, and forgiving student loans, making the rich pay an extra percent in taxes, and/or building more Starbucks for barista jobs will not solve a damn thing.
^ I keep marking this statement because there are a couple of ways that there could actually be more jobs, only one of which is really currently feasible, and that’s simply annihilating large percentages of the working population so that there is suddenly sufficient demand for the remaining labor pool again. I don’t think anyone thinks this is a good solution, but historically humans have resorted to war when resource distribution goes out of whack, and we are naive if we believe that it will not happen again. The other is finding some magical way to colonize the oceans/space/whatever that isn’t outrageously resource-intensive, since that would provide a lot of work for a lot of people. Pure fantasy, at least in the foreseeable future.:)